GUANGZHOU, China -- As China's air pollution and gridlock worsen and local debt mounts, more cities are looking to light rail as a low-cost alternative to pricey subways.
A total of more than 4,000km in light rail track is planned across the country -- a 40-fold increase from the current level -- with more than 2,000km expected to be completed by 2020, according to Xinhua News Agency.
In Guangdong Province, which has a population of more than 100 million and handles much of the world's manufacturing, the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen face severe traffic jams during rush hour. Guangzhou started trying to reduce vehicle sales in July 2012 by limiting license plate issuances.
Construction on Shenzhen's first light rail system broke ground on Dec. 27. Three lines are planned on a total of 51km of track, with operation slated to start at the end of this year. The system is located in the central Longhua New District, which has a growing population and a high concentration of homes and factories.
Guangzhou and the nearby cities of Foshan and Zhuhai have also embarked on light rail projects.
Elsewhere in China, Shenyang and Dalian in Liaoning Province, Shanghai, and other cities provide light rail service. The country likely has about 100km of light rail, far less than its subway lines, which total more than 2,000km.
While Yuan Qifeng, a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University, considers subways the main workhorse for public transit aimed at reducing gridlock, he notes the merits of light rail as well. "Construction costs are significantly lower than for subways, which cost 400 million yuan to 500 million yuan ($66 million to $82.6 million) per kilometer," he says.
Light rail construction costs in Shenzhen are expected to be one-fifth the cost of a subway, since no underground tunneling or major construction such as stations or walls is required.
Official figures show that local governments held 17.89 trillion yuan in direct and indirect debt as of the end of last June -- 70% higher than in the last survey at the end of 2010. Infrastructure building and other pursuits are pushing them into increasingly dire fiscal straits. Subway projects have been delayed in some cities due to funding shortages, making light rail an attractive alternative for its lower cost and shorter construction time.
China CNR Corp. and CSR Corp. will build the stock for the planned light rail lines. CSR plans to introduce the latest technology, having signed a licensing agreement with European giant Siemens in 2012. CNR, aiming for foreign markets, plans to export rail cars to Turkey.
Automobile demand is brisk in China, with new-vehicle sales breaking the 20 million mark last year. Whether citizens accustomed to the convenience of cars will be willing to jump on the light rail train is still unclear.